Environmental groups that oppose completing the six-lane Triangle Expressway across southern Wake County have proposed an alternative they say would do better at relieving congestion at a fraction of the cost.
The plan involves widening three existing east-west roads across southern Wake – N.C. 42, Ten-Ten Road and Tryon Road – and building new roads to connect them to existing highways on either end. It also involves converting U.S. 64 into a six-lane freeway between U.S. 1 and N.C. 55 in Cary and Apex and converting two intersections along N.C. 55 near Holly Springs into interchanges.
Most of the changes are ones that local transportation planners already hope to complete by 2040 anyway. The additional proposals, including several road extensions, would cost about $294 million, which the environmental groups contrast with the $2.2 billion cost of completing the N.C. 540 toll road from Holly Springs to Knightdale.
Transportation engineer Walter Kulash of Little Switzerland in western North Carolina drafted the alternative plan on behalf of the Southern Environmental Law Center, Sound Rivers and Clean Air Carolina. They call the plan “Access2040,” because they say it would be free to all, in contrast to the tolls on the Triangle Expressway.
“NCDOT’s proposed toll road improves travel times for a very few drivers and is actually projected by the department to make congestion on existing highways worse,” Kym Hunter, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “The negligible time-savings cannot justify the multibillion-dollar cost. Importantly, this alternative solution would save time for all drivers in the area, regardless of their ability to pay a toll, and at a much lower overall cost.”
Carly Olexik, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Turnpike Authority, which operates the Triangle Expressway, said state officials will review and consider the proposal from the environmental groups, as it does all comments from the public on the proposed highway. Olexik also noted that the NCDOT considered various alternatives to building N.C. 540 as required by the federal environmental study process.
“The Alternatives Analysis Report was coordinated with local governments, environmental resource agencies, the local planning organization and the public,” she wrote in an email. “It looked at existing roadway upgrades and other transportation solutions to see if they fit the need and the purpose of the project.”
NCDOT has been planning the extension of N.C. 540 across southern Wake since the 1990s. The Final Environmental Impact Statement, a report that spells out the possible effects of the final 28.4 miles of the Triangle Expressway on the natural and human environment, was released Dec. 22, putting the state on a schedule to begin construction early next year.
The proposed highway has the support of local and county governments in Wake as well as the business community. The Regional Transportation Alliance, a business group associated with the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, considers completing the Triangle Expressway the top transportation priority for Wake County and essential to speeding travel and reducing congestion.
Joe Milazzo, the group’s executive director, reviewed Access2040 and says it falls short of a 70 mph expressway that will serve as a core of the county’s transportation network and create new connections with five other freeways in the county.
“Not building 540 – and thereby jettisoning decades of plans by local, regional, and state governments from both a transportation and land use standpoint – would also result in asking local streets to serve regional travel purposes that they were never intended to perform, which area residents did not sign up for,” Milazzo wrote in an email.
Environmentalists have decried the damage the project known as Complete 540 would cause. It would consume 1,825 acres, including 69.5 acres of wetlands, cross several streams and likely harm two endangered species of freshwater mussels – the dwarf wedge and the yellow lance.
But they also question the assertion that the road would improve the flow of traffic. They note that NCDOT’s engineering firm concluded last fall that building the road would cause congestion on more existing primary roads in southern Wake County than would not building the road at all.
“When you bring in a big road like that, you increase traffic generally and you increase the land-use density, so you’ve got more traffic in the system,” Hunter said.
Hunter acknowledges that the Access2040 alternative would result in less “mobility,” measured in average speeds, across southern Wake, but says it would do better at reducing congestion. She describes the finishing of a circle freeway around the Raleigh metro area as an outdated transportation strategy that doesn’t take into account increasingly urban development patterns and the growing use of transit in the region.
The plan calls for several segments of new roads, including extending Tryon Road east to Rock Quarry Road, extending Ackerman Road to N.C. 50 and extending Jessie Drive from Ten-Ten Road to Old Holly Springs Apex Road.
The conceptual Access2040 plan doesn’t specify how much property would be needed or how much wetlands destroyed; it would entail building a new road across a tributary of Swift Creek, the primary habitat of the endangered mussels.
But Hunter says because that road would be smaller than 540, and because most of the rest of the plan entails widening existing roads that were largely built on ridgelines, the environmental impacts should be much less.
The Turnpike Authority and NCDOT will hold three meetings and a hearing this month to provide information about the highway, including preliminary designs, and gather feedback from the public. The three public meetings will take place:
▪ Tuesday, Feb. 20, from 6 to 8 p.m. in the cafeteria of Holly Springs High School, 5329 Cass Holt Road.
▪ Wednesday, Feb. 21, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Barwell Road Community Center gymnasium, 5857 Barwell Park Drive in Raleigh.
▪ Thursday, Feb. 22, from 4 to 6:30 p.m. on the Southern campus of Wake Tech Community College, 9101 Fayetteville Road, Rooms 212-214 of Student Services Building L. The meeting will be followed by a formal hearing at 7 p.m., with a presentation and the opportunity for the public to speak.
Written comments also can be submitted at the hearing or the public meetings. For more information about the project, including a link to the full Final Environmental Impact Statement, go to www.ncdot.gov/projects/complete540/.